Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Assessing Shooting Threats Is a Matter of Life or Death. Why Aren’t Experts Better at It?

There is no playbook for schools, and they need all the help they can get
By David Riedman, Jillian Peterson & James Densley — December 16, 2021 5 min read
Conceptual illustration of young person in crisis
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In Davison, Mich., 20 miles north of the site of the mass shooting at Oxford High School on Nov. 30, a middle schooler sits in prison for threatening a school shooting in 2019. For claiming the “trench coat mafia”—a reference to a debunked 1999 Columbine shooting conspiracy—and drawing up a detailed plan of attack, he was convicted of a 20-year felony.

Threats of school violence, credible or not, can result in serious consequences for the students making them. And this year, students are making them more and more. After the shooting at Oxford High School, scores of Michigan schools were closed because of threats, causing further despair and disruption to families still trying to process why a local child would ever kill their classmates.

Threats come in many forms, including direct communication, social-media posts, written plans and drawings, ominous messages scrawled on the bathroom wall, hearsay, and anonymous 911 calls. Some are real, some are unfunny jokes or hoaxes. There is no playbook for how to deal with them all except to say they must be taken seriously because school shooters nearly always tip their hand in advance.

With each threat investigation, school officials must weigh one student’s future against the health and safety of an entire school community. A wrong decision either way could change lives forever. Most school personnel do this without any formal training or standardized guidance. And the Oxford school shooting may set a precedent for criminally charging school staff for making the wrong decision.

Even the “experts” on threat assessment find this work difficult. We recently surveyed 229 senior law-enforcement officials and officers directly responsible for assessing threats and asked them to rate the severity of fictitious scenarios representative of common school shooting threats on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest). One example read: “A teacher at Oak Creek Elementary finds a student’s drawing of stick figures portraying a school shooting in a trash can.”

This situation is eerily similar to what happened at Oxford High School last month. There, a teacher found a note with a drawing of a gun and a bullet and the words, “The thoughts won’t stop help me” and “blood everywhere,” on it. In our fictitious scenario, however, 62 percent of the experts rated the threat as low, between 1-3 on the 10-point scale. Only 27 of the 229 scored it 8 or higher.

In another of our fictitious scenarios, a concerned student shares photographs of his classmates labeled with either a gun or heart emoji and posted on SnapChat to a school resource officer. Forty-five percent of the experts assessed this threat to be low (1-3). Only 15 of the 229 rated it 8 or higher. Early reports suggest that threats on social media, specifically SnapChat, circulated before the Oxford shooting and were taken so seriously by some students that they decided to stay home on the day of the attack. Currently, even threat-assessment professionals are torn about how to weigh the severity of threats made on social media.

On Dec. 6, a 12-year-old girl in Florida was charged with a second-degree felony for posting a school shooting reference on Instagram. Three other Florida students have been charged with felony threats since the Oxford High shooting. Whether or not these students had the capacity to act on their threats, these charges carry lifetime consequences.

Currently, even threat-assessment professionals are torn about how to weigh the severity of threats made on social media.

At the same time, new research shows that real school shooting threats tend to be a cry for help and that they are a critical intervention point for students who are struggling to cope with suicidal and homicidal ideation. These are students who need mental-health care and tailored intervention, not criminal-justice entanglements that may make matters worse.

Reading threats right is high stakes, and the findings from our yet unpublished survey are not intended to point blame. Instead, they highlight the dire need for national guidelines, standardized assessment tools, and training for school officials, mental-health providers, and law-enforcement practitioners.

The circumstances of the Oxford shooting are the same that we discovered over and over again when studying the life histories of school mass shooters: a 15- or 16-year-old white male student of the school, often with a significant trauma history. They are in a noticeable crisis, so there is a marked change in their behavior often flagged by teachers. They are actively suicidal and they tell other people about their plans as a cry for help.

This means that schools need training in suicide prevention and crisis intervention. They need easily accessible school-based mental-health and strong community partners. We know it’s critical to have multidisciplinary teams and systems in place so that evaluating a threat never falls on one person’s shoulders. A crisis team with mental-health professionals, teachers, administrators, and law enforcement can look at the student, the threat, and any mitigating or aggravating circumstances to evaluate how serious it is and what form of intervention is necessary. As we saw with the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., exclusionary practices like suspension and expulsions that push troubled students away, rather than pulling them into supportive services, can make things worse by intensifying their crisis and deepening their grievance with the school.

After 9/11, our country recognized that local police departments were ill-equipped to detect and stop terrorists, so we invested billions into training and equipment, a Joint Terrorism Taskforce in every city, and the entire federal Department of Homeland Security. In the years since 9/11, school shootings have claimed more lives than terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, yet we have left schools on an island without the resources needed to address these persistent threats. Our investments have largely been in physical security and active-shooter drills, which our research shows do little to prevent school shootings, only react to them after the fact.

Rather than criminally charge school officials, we must recognize how underresourced schools and communities are to both assess and respond to threats and provide the training, guidance, and resources necessary to keep students safe.

At a time when the pandemic has exacerbated many risk factors for violence, schools need all the help they can get to hear students’ cries for help and take the right actions before the next, sadly predictable, tragedy occurs.

On Friday, Dec. 17 at 10 a.m. ET, the Violence Project will host a free event on strategies for schools to respond to shooting threats.

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Assessing Shooting Threats Is a Matter of Life or Death. Why Aren’t Experts Better at It?

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